WHAT MORE COULD Erling Haaland have done? That’s the question fans, pundits, and likely Haaland himself will be asking for the rest of the Norwegian superstar’s career, after the talismanic striker came oh-so-close to claiming a maiden Ballon d’Or. Inevitably, the adjudicating panel decided to award the honour to Lionel Messi, in no small part due to the Argentinian’s instrumental role in securing his country’s third World Cup trophy.
It’s difficult to argue against Messi’s résumé, but Haaland’s 2023 season was one for the record books. His snubbing will undoubtedly be a hot topic in footballing circles for years to come. But then again, it was by no means the best season a player has ever had. As is the case with almost every award in sports, not everyone will agree on the recipient, and we could never expect to reach a global consensus. Let’s break down both players’ cases for the award.
How is the Ballon d’Or decided?
The Ballon d’Or is not awarded by some beneficent, all-powerful—and crucially, unbiased—governing body that decides who deserves public veneration and who should be cast aside without so much as a second glance. The Ballon d’Or is awarded by France Football—a French magazine, not the higher ups of their national football team—and a select group of journalists who know the ins and outs of the game and its developments over the previous season. The adjudicating panel judges eligible players on their individual performances, team success, and fair play over the previous season. ‘Previous season’ is the key term here, as that criterion was changed from ‘previous calendar year’ after the 2021-22 season.
Why did Messi deserve to win the Ballon d’Or?
In case you’re completely unfamiliar with the whirlwind, media saturated season that Lionel Messi just had, allow us to explain. Firstly, Argentina won the 2022 FIFA World Cup with Messi as captain and leading goal scorer. That’s where Messi’s biggest claim to the Ballon d’Or trophy lies. At club level, Messi spent the first half of the season with Paris Saint Germain (PSG), scoring 21 goals and nabbing 16 assists as the French giants continued to dominate their domestic league. But it was in European competition where PSG struggled.
Usually situated firmly in the upper echelon of contenders in the UEFA Champions League, PSG struggled out of the gate in the group stage, ultimately finishing second, but still progressing to the knockout stages by a more than comfortable margin. In the round of 16, PSG was eliminated by Bayern Munich 3-0 on aggregate, an inexplicably early exit for the team once considered the favourites to win the tournament. This is the biggest blemish on Messi’s résumé. The Argentinian joined PSG in 2021, promising to deliver the club’s first ever Champions League trophy. PSG subsequently poured exorbitant amounts of money into the team but could never get over the final hurdle.
Messi’s departure from PSG in July afforded him a clean slate and a chance to demonstrate his immensely superior talent in a new market as he joined Inter Miami in the USA, but it was also an admission of failure, a sign that the PSG experiment was dead and buried without a funeral.
Messi’s domination of the MLS has, as you would expect, been covered extensively. The maestro’s ten goals in the Leagues Cup guided Inter Miami to their first ever trophy, but his elevated level of skill couldn’t lift his team up the table in regular league play. At the conclusion of the 2022-23 season, Inter Miami finished 14th out of 15 teams in the MLS’s Eastern Conference.
Messi’s individual performances, as usual, are a class above the rest. There is no doubt that he remains one of the world’s best at 36 years old, nor are there any points of contention in the Argentinian’s record of fair play. But apart from the World Cup win (which is no easily diminished accomplishment), Messi’s teams haven’t found the expected levels of success, providing room for another player to emerge as a leading candidate for the Ballon d’Or.
Why did Haaland deserve to win the Ballon d’Or?
At just 23 years old, Erling Haaland is already one of the world’s best footballers, and there’s a case to be made that he’s already the best. Haaland made the switch to Manchester City from Borussia Dortmund earlier this year, with lofty expectations immediately heaped upon him. For Haaland, becoming the English Premier League’s best player wasn’t a hope, it was an expectation, and he certainly delivered.
In just his first season in the league, Haaland shattered the English Premier League’s record for goals in a season, with 36. He added 16 more goals in cup competitions, and four in international play, bringing his final tally to 56. Haaland’s goal-scoring exploits propelled Manchester City to a third straight Premier League title, an FA cup victory, and a maiden Champions League trophy, with the team attaining the coveted ‘treble’, which requires winning their domestic league, domestic cup, and continental trophy. It was a feat previously only ever accomplished by one other English team, the legendary Manchester United squad of 1998-99.
The limited caveats to Haaland’s case for the Ballon D’Or rest in his national team’s struggles. Where Messi’s Argentina won the World Cup, Haaland’s Norway failed to even qualify. Although, Norway aren’t exactly known as a traditional footballing powerhouse, having only qualified for three World Cups, most recently in 1998, whereas Argentina have won the tournament twice before.
Haaland’s superior teammates have also tarnished his case for the Ballon d’Or. While the Norwegian’s litany of goals played an important role in Manchester City’s treble, they were by no means the only factor in the team’s immensely successful season. On the other hand, Argentina’s World Cup run can be largely attributed to Messi’s astonishing level of play, which included scoring goals in every knockout game, and two in the final. Many of Haaland’s goals can also be credited, in part, to the incredible skills of his teammates, like Kevin De Bruyne, who finished fourth in Ballon d’Or voting.
Should Messi have won the Ballon d’Or?
Sports fans will rarely agree on anything. Much less on what player should win an award. We all have our own personal biases. We all have attributes and accolades that we value higher than others. And of course, we all hold grudges against specific teams and players that may considerably weigh down their standing in our minds—remember, Messi did eliminate the Socceroos at the World Cup. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be a surprise that not everyone agrees on who should’ve won the Ballon D’or, but know this: although both players have weaknesses on their résumés, Erling Haaland and Lionel Messi were both deserving of the Ballon d’Or. Messi ultimately came out on top, and that will upset some people, but it’s not as if he had a terrible season and the adjudicating panel is horribly biased. Anyway, Haaland is only 23. He has plenty of time to claim a handful of Ballon d’Ors, perhaps even more than Messi, who has eight.
Who won the women’s Ballon d’Or?
Matildas captain and World Cup hero Sam Kerr finished second in the Ballon d’Or Féminin (or women’s golden ball for those not versed in the French language), but there won’t be a debate over the winner, like there is in the men’s discipline. Aitana Bonmatí claimed the top honour, after putting together a season where she accomplished just about all there is to accomplish in football. Bonmatí won a fourth consecutive league title with Barcelona and added a Champions League victory on top of it. Of course, Bonmatí was also a pivotal figure in Spain’s success at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, where she claimed player of the tournament honours.
Kerr was unlucky to miss out, but her second place finish is still the closest she’s come to winning a Ballon D’Or, after finishing third in both of the last two seasons. Her fellow Australian, Hayley Raso, came in at 17th in the final rankings.